One of the events that has been creating a real buzz at Dev8D is the daily Arduino workshop. For a couple of hours each day, groups of developers have been let loose with basic electronic equipment – think breadboards, LEDs, resistors and wire cutters – and discovering the joys of using a microcontroller to programme little lights to flash in sequence and cheesy tunes to tinkle out. The tweets and excited chatter following the morning workshops – and the attendance at the afternoon’s more advanced sessions – all testify to the way that it has caught the imagination of Dev8D participants.
At the heart of the workshop’s activities is the Arduino circuit board, a small piece of open source hardware named after the pub where, in 2005, three Italian techies came up with the idea for an inexpensive, powerful microcontroller. (The story behind Arduino is pretty cool – find out more in this Wired article from 2008)
Since then many thousands of units of the ‘official’ Arduino board (identified by the Italian flag on the back) have been sold and, because the designs are licenced under Creative Commons, many millions more have been made and used. The Arduino is cheap, fast and flexible and, as a result, it has swiftly become the circuit board of choice for makers all over the world. Check out the Arduino Playground exhibition page to discover some of the quirky creations, which include robots, musical instruments and note-taking systems.
So what’s the appeal of Arduino? “It’s very direct, very tangible,” says Garry Bulmer, the Dev8D workshop leader. “A lot of modern applications have got obsessed with windows and mice and keyboards and people think that’s what computers are but there are 25 times more of these around which have very different physical interfaces.”
This also makes them ideal for the work Bulmer does introducing electronics to kids in after-school clubs. “The kind of technology that high tech labs had 30 years ago to observe the world, kids have now so if they are ingenious they can do some quite radical things. It’s delightful for me for people to be able to do what used to be high tech activities.”
It’s this element that has impressed Alistair Grant, a developer who took part in the workshop in the hope that it might help him to teach programming to a younger age group. He compares using Arduino to Lego Mindstorms, a graphical language with Lego blocks that proved that you could teach even really young kids the basics of programming.
“This could work as a similar method as the concepts are similar,” he says. “Most kids love building robots and making flashing things and this is playing at it in the full way they would use it, it’s not stripping it down much or dumbing down, it’s something real to use. The breadboards are great as there are no health and safety issues with hot soldering irons involved!”
Talking to him after the workshop, he was full of enthusiasm for the potential of Arduino in his work. “This is definitely a great way to introduce younger kids to computing – if they had access to stuff like this a lot of them would be more interested in it rather than the stuff they get taught in schools.”
“It’s been an eye-opener,” agrees Kelvin Gan. “I didn’t think I’d find this interesting as I’m generally not interested in electronics or hardware. In school was all about building circuit boards. This, using programming, brings it into my realm.”
Although this kind of workshop may seem far removed from the everyday work of many of the developers here, there is a value in being introduced to new skills that help you to think differently. “It’s good to sometimes do things that are very different to what you normally do as makes you look at things in a different way, and it’s always good to be reminded how quickly you can learn new stuff – it’s too easy to get daunted by doing new stuff and forget how much progress you can make in a couple of hours,” explains Juliette Culver, another happy participant in the Arduino workshop.
Playing with Arduinos is cheap, you say? How cheap?
Make your own Arduino LED circuit for not very much money
Battery (34p from the Poundshop)
LED (5p each)
Red wire and black wire (5p a metre)
An Arduino (£23 or, with Open Source, could make your own for £14)
Follow the instructions and within a couple of hours you, too, can have your own Blinking LED or Doorbell of Loathing.